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Memories of Palmito Hill Texas

Near the lowest end of the Rio Grande, less than ten miles from where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico, is the wide plain called Palmito Hill. Covered in grassy brush and cactus and edged in Honey Mesquite thickets, this area hosts Eastern Meadowlarks, Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers, Couch’s Kingbirds, Gray Catbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, Lark Sparrows, and no doubt other species I failed to meet during my brief visits here. 

On May 13, 1865, thirty-four days after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the last battle of the Civil War took place on these grounds.

I paid three visits to this location while I stayed in Brownsville, Texas during the early lock-down because of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Many of the higher profile birding destinations I’d planned to attend while visiting south Texas had been closed in response to the pandemic, but this location was not. On the recommendation of a federal law enforcement officer I met at Atascosa NWR, I located this wide open grassland, and it was a delight, especially having been restricted for weeks to my Brownsville RV campgrounds.

While I was looking at the historical signs and monuments at the entry point to the fields, I heard bird songs vaguely familiar, yet unfamiliar. There were meadowlarks perched on the fence lines, but they looked much like the Western Meadowlarks I’ve seen so often on my home grounds in San Diego and elsewhere in the west. I listened to recordings of Eastern Meadowlarks and learned that the songs I was listening to belonged to this species. Once again Texas had delivered me a new bird!

Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers are easy to find here in the Texas spring season. If one drives over many of the long roads in this region, it’s likely you’ll find them rising from a perch on a roadside fence or power line. At this site I met a half-dozen pairs, even one attending a nest in mesquite growing next to a narrow dirt road I explored. With their extraordinarily long tails flowing behind them, they flitted butterfly-like, low over the cactus and grass, capturing winged prey, while dazzling their mates and interested observers such as myself.

On my second visit here, I found a Blue Grosbeak that confused me. Rather than the robust blues over its body, this bird was blue only on its head. I looked in my bird guide and learned this was a first year male bird. I have so much to learn, and here was this bird in Texas teaching me another titbit.

I returned to Texas early in 2021, determined to give south Texas as much time as I could manage. I revisited this location two more times. Once on 2021-01-26, and again on 2021-03-27. White-Tailed and Harris Hawks were kind enough to sit for portraits and even launched into flight low over my head. Passerines such as Common Yellowthroats, House and Cactus Wrens, Mockingbirds, White-Eyed Vireos, and Yellow-Rumped and Orange-Crowned Warblers showed up to entertain me.

I don’t recall seeing this place mentioned in any of the published literature I found, but it sure paid off for me during my time there.

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